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Community Engagement and the Future of Policing

Photos: Courtesy of ArtPlace America

A fenced-off lot filled with weeds and rubble was just one of many properties sitting vacant along a once-vibrant commercial corridor in California’s Alameda County. Rising poverty and unemployment had led to an influx of gangs, drugs and crime, and the area was marked by cycles of joblessness, poverty, incarceration, re-entry and re-arrest. 

Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Captain Marty Neideffer grew up around here, so he is familiar with this cycle. Driven by a desire to make a difference and a love for his community, he decided to stay in Alameda County and become a cop. Six years in as an officer, Neideffer founded the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League (DSAL) to help county law enforcement provide positive programs and activities for kids. Their endeavors were to be pointed squarely at keeping kids out of jail and  interrupting the destructive, sometimes multi-generational cycles that lead to poverty and crime. 

After a decade of grassroots community policing work, the Alameda County Sheriffs’ Office (ACSO) turned its attention to that vacant lot. Suddenly, instead of weeds (and weed), “Eden Night Live” posters and banners started appearing on fences to announce a festival coming soon. Residents were intrigued; with very little public space and few community venues in this area, nothing like this had happened before. 

To organize the event, the ACSO and DSAL secured a number of local and national funding partners, and deputies began to roll up their sleeves and work alongside residents: shoveling dirt, setting up picnic tables and lights, painting murals and building a soccer field. On opening night, carnival lights and murals decorated the site, and deputies and local kids played beach volleyball and basketball together. Live music filled the air; teens filled the dance floor. Families and deputies ate dinner together, feasting on local food truck delicacies and chatting about their lives. A bouncy castle entertained the youngest as local residents sold crafts, art and cakes. Civic groups had tables heaving with leaflets telling of classes, community gardening and volunteering at schools.

In its first two years, Eden Night Live drew over 20,000 visitors and attracted 27 local vendors, some of which led to the Chamber of Commerce incubating new businesses. Not bad for a forgotten fenced-off lot.

Deputies continue to invest their time in this area because they care about their community — and because they see what can happen when their energy is invested in people. In a world where it is perceived that law enforcement is becoming increasingly militarized and impersonal, the deep community engagement in Alameda County offers a promising alternative.

This work is radically shifting the way officers see their role in the community, and it all adds up to the idea that true public safety goes beyond mere law enforcement. Police must take into account the broad range of what people in a community actually need: civic engagement, education, physical and mental health, neighborhood vitality and citizen advocacy. “True community policing is big, and requires you to think in terms of decades, not months or even years,” remarked Neideffer. “People have to see you’re down in it with them, and on their side, for the long haul.”

Sarah Westlake, Managing Editor, ArtPlace America, [email protected]

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